Friday, January 12, 2007

Using a virtual learning platform in a 10 month action learning programme

Hettie Walters from Wageningen International was the lead coach in the SNV Advisory Practice Learning Programme (APLP). She shares her experiences using e-collaboration tools in the programme.

Could you describe the importance of virtual learning was in the programme in one sentence?

“The whole backbone of the Advisory Practice and Learning Program was based on the virtual learning platform.”

Why did you use a virtual learning platform?

“We wanted people to be able to participate in the programme from their actual workplace. APLP involved 60 people working in different places in the world. We wanted to link the learning process to the actual working situation. Instead of taking people out of their work situation to a training set, and than hope that -when back in their working environment- they are able to apply what they have learned in the training, we wanted to use an action-reflection learning approach whereby people stay for the largest part of the programme within their working situation and apply the learning, reflection, experimentation and change in the actual workplace. We figured that the best way to facilitate such the learning process was using e-tools.”

How was the learning process organized?

“The people worked together in Action Learning Sets, groups of 6 people from mixed geographical and sectoral backgrounds. These groups acted as support groups to the individual members in their learning process. The virtual learning platform was the means of connection and interaction between the members of the action learning groups and the coaches. It allowed people to participate in the learning program from their actual workplace.
Each group had it’s own coach. The individual coaching was done by means of chat.

How is online coaching different from face-to-face coaching?

"When using chat for virtual coaching you can only use one of your senses. You can read and write, but you don’t see somebody’s facial expression, their comfort or discomfort in a particular situation in a coaching session. However we noticed that the text chat function gives you much more opportunity than we envisaged at the start for understanding what the other person was saying, feeling, and sometimes also was not saying. I think it is because the text chat changes the pace of the conversation. While the other is writing you have time to think about what you will write. You can reflect on what the other person said, what you are sensing, what you read in the omissions. It helps to create more depth in the coaching sessions. We were pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of coaching using text chat. "

How were group chats prepared and facilitated?

"Most of the learning sets had a rotating division of tasks. Someone had the role of timekeeper, another was moderator, another ”process guardian” . Everyone would get feedback after the session on how they performed in their role. We noticed that when problems arise in a chat, it is very difficult to change the process while in the chat. We also found out that for the group chats to be effective, proper preparation of the group chats by all participants was very important. It has to be clear to everyone what the chat session will be about. Without preparation the chat would not be focused. Preparation of chats was done using the discussion forum. Either someone would propose a problem he / she wanted to discuss, and formulate specific questions. Other times the initial discussion was taking place in the discussion forum. "

What was the optimal group size for chat sessions?

“The size of the group was also important in the effectiveness of a chat. Normally 4-5 people would participate. We occasionally used the chat with larger groups of 7-8 people. This was too big because attention would have gone down even before everyone would have had a chance to contribute something on a certain matter.”

What were prerequisites for the virtual learning process?

“Connectivity, availability and readiness to learn (ability). The connectivity is the only technical prerequisite. The others have to do with the action learning and reflection process itself. People find it very difficult to combine learning with working. You either work or you learn, and for learning you go out of your workplace. Making yourself able and available for learning in your work situation is very difficult.”

Which tools were most useful in the learning programme?

"The virtual learning platform had several functionalities, a chat function, a discussion forum, a library, an archive, a calendar. The most important for the learning process were the combination of preparing the reflection using the discussion tool and deepening the reflection using chat.”

What are essential ingredients to keep online interaction going, to keep people motivated and inspired?

“It is very important to plan properly in the group: what is going to be done when and by whom. If not all group members stick to that process, they frustrate the process for the others in the group. It is also important that people know about the others in the group. If you only met virtually, it is very difficult to understand the context of the situation others are working in. We did not plan enough F2F time with he members of the learning sets to get to know each other. Therefore we made some changes to the new action learning program. To help people to get to know the situation other group members are working in, we decided to have F2F meetings of the learning groups before the start of the virtual phase.”


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